By Mary Sell, Alabama Daily News
The presidential election and U.S. Senate contest might be the big draws for voters, but there are also six statewide constitutional amendments on the ballot Nov. 3.
Several of the proposed changes to the state constitution were approved by lawmakers in the 2019 legislative session. Here’s a recap of each.
If approved by voters, Amendment I would “provide that only a citizen of the United States has the right to vote.”
According to the Fair Ballot Commission, the state constitution grants the right to vote to U.S. citizens who meet certain requirements. The amendment does not change those requirements. Citizenship is a federal requirement to vote.
If a majority of voters vote “yes” for Amendment 1, the state constitution will grant the right to vote to “only” those U.S. citizens who meet the requirements. If a majority of voters vote “no,” the state constitution will continue to grant the right to vote to “every” U.S. citizen who meets the requirements, according to the commission.
Legislation for the proposed amendment was sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, in 2019.
Marsh said he doesn’t think non-citizens voting is a big problem in Alabama. But the amendment “sends a message to Washington.”
“And I think you have a lot of states that do not police this,” Marsh said this week.
Marsh’s legislation cleared the Senate and House last year without any no votes.
Amendment 2 proposes to make several changes to the administration and oversight of the state’s court system and judges.
Currently, the Alabama chief justice appoints the administrator of courts, the executive who oversees court operations. If approved, Amendment 2 would allow the full Supreme Court to make the appointment.
Legislation for the proposed amendment was sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. He said the proposal allows for a renewable contract for the administrator and the position would no longer be at the whim of the chief justice. Because the administrator oversees the entire state court system, there needs to be stability, Orr said.
“We’ve had a series of AOC directors because new chief justices have come and gone, every six years, and they bring their own director with them,” Orr said this week. “And that’s created a revolving door, as far as the chief administrator of the court system.
“Putting that responsibility with the Supreme Court as a whole, in coordination with the chief justice, should provide more continuity.”
If approved, the amendment would also:
- Provide that county district courts do not have to hold city court in a city with a population of less than 1,000;
- Increases from nine to 11 the total membership of the Judicial Inquiry Commission, which evaluates ethics complaints against judges, and determines who appoints each member;
- Allow the governor, rather than the lieutenant governor, to appoint a member of the Court of the Judiciary, which hears complaints filed by the Judicial Inquiry Commission;
- Prevent a judge from being automatically disqualified from holding office simply because a complaint was filed with the Judiciary Inquiry Commission;
- Provides that a judge can be removed from office only by the Court of the Judiciary. Currently, the Legislature can impeach judges.
Amendment 3 is also court related. If approved, it would extend the time appointed circuit and district court judges could fill a vacancy before facing election. Under current law, district and circuit judges appointed by the governor serve an initial term of one year or the remainder of the original term, whichever is longer. This amendment would change that initial term of the appointed judge to at least two years before they must run for election.
Proposed Amendment 4 would reorganize Alabama’s notoriously long constitution and remove outdated and racist language.
The legislation by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, would authorize the Legislature to recompile the Constitution during its 2022 session.
Citing calls for social justice across the nation, Coleman on Thursday said she thinks “this is a prime time for the state of Alabama to actually come to the 21st Century by removing the racist language that is embodied inside the state constitution.”
The changes are limited to: Removing racist language and language that is repeated or no longer applies; combining language related to economic development; and language that relates to the same county.
The Constitution still has references to separate schools for white and “colored children” and laws against marriages between “any white person and a negro … .”
Similar ballot referendums failed in 2012 and 2004.
About those previous attempts, Coleman said people are now paying more attention to recent police shootings and killings of Black men and systematic racism.
“Not only are they paying attention, they want to do something about it,” Coleman said.
Coleman said she was recently proud of some of her Republican colleagues in the State House who condemned state Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, for his participation last month in a celebration honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I think that this time, if Alabamians are successful in removing that racist language through a vote of the people, I think that sends a message, nationally, about who we are.”
Coleman said it’s not just a social issue, but an economic development issue “for those of us who want to bring industry, new ideas, new technology, new research, new employees that are diverse into the state of Alabama.
“… We need to send a message that the Will Dismukes of the Alabama Legislature and of Alabama — that’s Alabama of the past. And the majority of us in the state of Alabama believe that there ought to be equality for all men and women in this country and we can start that right now by removing that racist language.”
When lawmakers’ work is done, the new Constitution wouldn’t go into effect until approved by a majority of voters.
“As we near 1,000 amendments to the Constitution the amount of clutter, redundancy, and problematic language is more than can be reasonably fixed in a piecemeal fashion,” said Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency. “This amendment will allow for many of those issues to be addressed at once in a safe manner with the electorate knowing they will still have the opportunity to ratify the changed document.
“This will not solve every perceived issue, but will go a long way to resetting the stage so that the bigger issues can be identified and addressed in the future.”
Amendments 5 and 6
Amendments 5 and 6 are specific only to Franklin and Lauderdale counties, respectively. But because the supporting legislation to specify that church members in those counties can use deadly force if they feel threatened in their places of worship was voted against by one House member, they now go on the statewide ballot.
The county constitutional amendments were proposed in 2019 after a statewide bill appeared in danger of failing for a third year in a row. Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said the legislation clarifies the state’s “stand your ground” law applies inside houses of worship. It says a person is presumed justified in the use of force if they or someone else is in danger.
Opponents of the proposal, including Democrats, said it’s not needed because the 2006 “stand your ground” law already applies in churches.
Greer recently said he’d prefer the Lauderdale County amendment was only voted on in that county, but if it fails on the statewide ballot, he’ll refile the legislation next year.
“You wouldn’t believe the groups we’ve met with, all over Alabama,“ Greer said about his work on the legislation since 2016. His proposal is modeled after Mississippi law.
“This is probably the most popular piece of legislation I’ve ever dealt with,” Greer said.
Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, last year said he thinks the Franklin County amendment will be approved by statewide voters.
“It may give the statewide legislation some traction,” he said then.
Several similar, county specific bills made it through the State House without any opposition and will be on the ballots only in Colbert, Limestone and Talladega counties.